The Johns Hopkins Gazette: June 21, 1999
June 21, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 38


Scene on Campus

3 p.m. Friday, May 21 Homewood

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

We're looking for the sound of a boat whistle," Matt Crenson says, as he strolls across the upper quad, headed for Krieger Hall.

It's a beautiful May afternoon, and Crenson, professor of political science, is on his way to meet with students who have been working all semester on an independent study project. The students--Chris Needham, Brian King, Kate Hays and Jake Buurma--have been putting together a multimedia presentation on the waterfront neighborhood of Canton in East Baltimore.

One of the women they interviewed, Crenson explains, told the story of how her husband had moved into Canton after they were married and how he had been disturbed by the boat whistles. The man eventually got used to them, came to love them and Canton, didn't ever want to leave. "And she said, 'He died here, so I guess he's satisfied,' " Crenson remembers the woman saying.

So they want to end their multimedia presentation with the woman's quote, a black screen and the mournful sound of a boat whistle, Crenson explains. "But it's pretty hard to find a boat whistle sound."

At the computer lab in Krieger, Crenson meets up with Needham, Hays and Buurma. (King has a problem this day and can't make it.) Professor and students sit down at a high-powered Mac and begin talking about the project.

It grew out of a class Crenson co-taught with four other professors last fall, a course looking at Baltimore as an example of a city under stress. Crenson and 10 or so students focused on Canton, a working-class enclave currently experiencing a wave of gentrification.

Fanning out across the endless rows of marble steps, the students tracked down current and former residents, factory workers and politicians. They tape-recorded between 20 and 30 hours' worth of raw material and took photographs of their subjects, where they lived and where they used to work.

Crenson recalls very "ambitious" plans to put together a long, documentary-like piece, but the students quickly learned that weaving together all that they had gathered into a coherent and interesting presentation would be much harder than they thought.

"At the time, we thought it would be relatively easy," Crenson says.

"Little did we know," Needham says, with a laugh.

By end of the fall semester, the project was partially completed, and a short segment was demonstrated for the class. But Needham, Hays, King and Buurma realized there was so much more to be done and volunteered to finish the project as an independent study.

"We all got really interested in Canton as a neighborhood," Hays says.

For the interviews to be useful, each hour of recorded conversation had to be "logged"--that is, a transcript made with time markers. That was the most time-consuming part of the work.

With the audio tapes logged and converted into computer files, the students began working with a software program that allows audio to be mixed with images, sort of like editing a film.

"None of us knew the technology coming in, so we had to learn it," Needham says.

The students assumed, for instance, that the computer would be able to eliminate background noise from audio tapes.

"But we couldn't find that button," Needham says.

During this spring semester, the four students met regularly to work on the presentation. They researched and wrote a script for narration, and selected images and interview clips to use. Hays, with acting experience, recorded the narration.

But then, disaster.

Needham had stored all their audio files on his JHU account, and when they went to get them back, they discovered the files had all been corrupted and were unusable. Then they had to relog the tapes.

Without that setback, they say, the presentation would be complete by now.

Still, sitting around the computer in the basement of Krieger, they play the 10 or 12 minutes they do have completed. Hays' voice explains the history of Canton, how it was named because of its frequent trade with China, and different residents recall life in Canton.

Cornell N. Dypski, a Maryland state legislator from Canton, remembers how he and the neighborhood children would go down to the canning factory in summer to bring lunch to their mothers. And how he would never forget seeing his mother, dressed in a heavy rubber apron, dripping perspiration and splattered with tomato juice from the canning work.

When they finally complete the presentation, the students intend on putting it on a CD-ROM and giving several copies to the Canton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, Crenson says. Maybe even have a public showing of it.

One thing the students learned, they say, is that with so much material, they have lots of interesting stories, but not all of it will make the final cut. "A lot of them have really good stuff," Needham says. "But does it fit in?"
--Glenn Small